Sen. Chuck Grassley’s questioning of FBI Director Christopher Wray during Thursday’s Judiciary Committee hearing, when considered in conjunction with the details provided by FBI whistleblowers, is suggestive of an even bigger Hunter Biden scandal.
Last week, Grassley revealed that “multiple FBI whistleblowers, including those in senior positions,” claimed the “Washington Field Office assistant special agent in charge Timothy Thibault and other FBI officials … ‘falsely portray[ed] as disinformation evidence acquired from multiple sources that provided the FBI derogatory information related to Hunter Biden’s financial and foreign business activities, even though some of that information had already been or could be verified.’” The whistleblowers also told the Iowa Republican senator that “in August of 2020, FBI supervisory intelligence analyst Brian Auten opened an assessment, which was used by a team of agents at FBI headquarters to improperly discredit and falsely claim that derogatory information about Biden’s activities was disinformation, causing investigative activity and sourcing to be shut down.”
Grassley further revealed that “the FBI headquarters team allegedly placed their assessment findings in a restricted access subfolder, effectively flagging sources and derogatory evidence related to Hunter Biden as disinformation while shielding the justification for such findings from scrutiny.”
In revealing news of the whistleblowers’ claims, Grassley did not further detail the sources of the derogatory information. However, in questioning Wray during Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, four exchanges proved intriguing — and potentially insightful.
1. Was a Second U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Evidence Buried?
After using his opening statement to review the whistleblowers’ allegations, Grassley asked Wray whether “when the FBI receives a potential criminal investigation relating to a matter subject to information and prosecution by a U.S. attorney, is it the FBI’s standard practice to share that information with the relevant U.S. attorney’s office?”
Wray replied in the affirmative, noting that it is his expectation that when a particular U.S. attorney’s office and the related relevant FBI field office have the lead on an investigation, if other U.S. attorneys’ offices come across information that is relevant to that investigation, those tips and leads will be passed on to the lead office.
This line of questioning ran parallel to The Federalist’s reporting last week that noted that while the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware pursued its investigation of Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings, then-Attorney General William Barr had directed the Pittsburgh U.S. attorney to review material purporting to show Hunter Biden’s involvement in criminal business dealings in Ukraine.
While little is publicly known about the work of the Pittsburgh U.S. attorney’s office, shortly after Biden’s election, the New York Times ran a hit piece on former Pittsburgh U.S. Attorney Scott Brady, presenting him as a Trump partisan, purportedly based “on interviews with five current and former law enforcement officials and others with knowledge of F.B.I. interactions with the Justice Department.” Among other things, the Times reported that Brady sought “to take aggressive steps,” including having the FBI interview a list of potential witnesses. The Times’ unnamed sources claimed that in response to the Pittsburgh U.S. attorney’s investigation, FBI agents “found ways to ostensibly satisfy Mr. Brady.”
Revisiting the Times article and the claims of these unnamed sources in light of the whistleblowers’ claims suggests FBI headquarters either improperly withheld information or presented inaccurate information to the U.S. attorney’s office in Pittsburgh and possibly also Delaware. And now, Grassley is questioning the FBI director on how evidence from one U.S. attorney’s office should be handled when another office is running lead. That question seems suggestive of the possibility that the evidence buried by FBI headquarters came from the Pittsburgh U.S. attorney’s office or the related FBI field office and was never shared with the Delaware U.S. attorney’s office.
Brady declined to comment to The Federalist and Grassley’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment as of publication time.
2. Was There a Foreign Human Source?
A second line of Grassley’s inquiry during Thursday’s hearing raises further questions about the type of evidence purportedly buried by FBI headquarters.
“I would like to know if the FBI received information that foreign persons had evidence of improper or unlawful financial payments paid to elected officials or other politically exposed persons would that pose a nation security concern?” Grassley asked the FBI director. And what steps should the FBI take “to vet or more fully investigate improper or unlawful money paid to elected officials and other politically exposed persons?” Grassley inquired.
Given Grassley’s focus on the whistleblower information during the hearing and the similarity between the hypothetical posed and the allegations swirling around Hunter Biden, this line of inquiry suggests FBI headquarters may have wrongly classified a foreign human source with evidence about Hunter Biden as disinformation and did so without any vetting or investigation. And having Wray state for the record, as he did, that the FBI would look at such information “very closely” and “very seriously” through the FBI’s maligned foreign influence teams, and with the potential involvement of public corruption resources, seems a purposeful tact for Grassley to make as he moves the whistleblowers’ claims move forward, especially if the evidence shows that the agents presented with the derogatory information about Hunter did not properly address the evidence.
3. How Was the Derogatory Information on Hunter Biden Branded Disinformation?
Grassley also pushed Wray on the question of disinformation. Again, while his questions were posed generically, the whistleblowers’ claims provide an interesting context to the discussion.
What criteria does the FBI use to evaluate whether evidence “is or isn’t disinformation”? the Iowa senator asked.
Here, Wray responded that “when it comes to disinformation, we’re not out there investigating whether or not information we see floating around is truthful or false in the first instance.” Rather, the FBI’s focus is on whether “there’s a foreign adversary trying to push information and from there we look into,” Wray explained. “When it comes to disinformation and defensive briefing, for example,” Wray continued, “there is an inter-agency process, that is [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] coordinated because a lot of this information comes not from the FBI but from other intelligence agencies, or in some cases from foreign allies,” the FBI director explained.
That testimony raises numerous red flags when considered against the whistleblowers’ claims that evidence about Hunter Biden was wrongly labeled disinformation by FBI headquarters. First, just from Wray’s testimony, it appears that the FBI agents would not be the appropriate ones to deem evidence “disinformation.”
Second, given the “inter-agency process” mentioned, one wonders if FBI headquarters reached out to any of the other intelligence agencies to discuss the derogatory information about Hunter Biden and if so, did another intelligence agency brand it disinformation? Third, was this derogatory evidence ever shared with the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, or if not, why not?
The whistleblowers’ allegations were bad enough before, but now that Wray has explained the inter-agency involvement in assessing disinformation and in providing defensive briefings, the scandal could be even worse, if, for instance, FBI headquarters marked the sources as disinformation without sharing the intel with the other agencies as seems the proper protocol from Wray’s testimony.
4. Does the FBI Have a Culture of Retaliation?
A final line of questioning of interest focused on ensuring the whistleblowers would not be retaliated against. Here, it is interesting to note that Grassley stated that during his June telephone conversation with the FBI director they had “discussed the need to protect whistleblowers that had approached my office.” Grassley then thanked Wray for his commitment to preventing retaliatory conduct against whistleblowers, before asking two follow-up questions.
“Do you agree any retaliatory conduct against whistleblowers must be disciplined?” Grassley asked first.
Wray agreed that any conduct against whistleblowers was “unacceptable” and that the department had a “number of mechanisms” in place to protect whistleblowers.
Grassley then asked for Wray to commit “that the FBI won’t take any action to determine who the whistleblowers are.” Wray again confirmed the bureau would “be scrupulous in our rules” and condemned “in the strongest possible terms any prospect of retaliation against whistleblowers.”
That Grassley had Wray publicly reaffirm his commitment to protect the whistleblowers and condemn any possible retaliation raises the question of whether the FBI has a culture of retaliation. That might explain why the agents who came forward to Grassley about the alleged burying of evidence against Hunter Biden did so only within the last two months, when the charged misconduct occurred back in 2020. Grassley may also be seeking to assure other would-be whistleblowers that he will safeguard their identity and hold the FBI director responsible for guaranteeing they are not retaliated against.
With this guarantee now public, the question for the “patriots working their tails off,” as Sen. John Kennedy called the FBI agents not implicated in wrongdoing during yesterday’s hearing, is whether they will come forward to out the bad apples. If not, are they really patriots working their tails off? Or are they really just trying to save their hides.
Margot Cleveland is The Federalist’s senior legal correspondent. She is also a contributor to National Review Online, the Washington Examiner, Aleteia, and Townhall.com, and has been published in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Cleveland is a lawyer and a graduate of the Notre Dame Law School, where she earned the Hoynes Prize—the law school’s highest honor. She later served for nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk for a federal appellate judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Cleveland is a former full-time university faculty member and now teaches as an adjunct from time to time. As a stay-at-home homeschooling mom of a young son with cystic fibrosis, Cleveland frequently writes on cultural issues related to parenting and special-needs children. Cleveland is on Twitter at @ProfMJCleveland. The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.